Poor nations need help to fight climate change

Jan 4, 2011

Two Syracuse University professors say wealthy countries need to help developing countries in their efforts to mitigate climate change.  The key?  What they call “meaningful technology transfer.”

David Driesen and David Popp have written a piece for the Journal of International Affairs, in which they acknowledge that developing countries need to grow economically, in order to help alleviate poverty, and prosper.  But they warn that emerging nations shouldn’t ignore gas emissions as a means to greater wealth.  So how do they propose to balance growth with environmental caution?

“Given the limited financial and technical capabilities of developing countries, this task seems impossible without technology transfer,” said Driesen and Popp.

"Technology transfer" is basically the practice of circulating information or equipment from a private business or educational institution to other stakeholders, like a government. In this case, the information or equipment would help combat climate change.

So what makes technology transfer "meaningful?"  Driesen and Popp say tech transfer becomes most effective when three things happen alongside it: 

  • Knowledge spillover:  Spillover is essentially a ripple effect.  So if a school or company shares an innovation for fighting climate change or greenhouse gas emissions in a developing country, and people in that country can then use it to create new innovations from it (without providing compensation to the creator of the initial innovation), that’s a spillover.  Impact is gleaned by piggybacking on someone else's idea.
  • Additionality: This is the notion that climate change efforts have to happen on top of what a country might already be doing.  So that might mean planting a forest to gobble up excess C02 in the atmosphere, and then issuing carbon credits based on the expected offsets.  But no cheating - if you already have a forest and the you're not making any special plans to protect it as a carbon offsetting project, that carbon gains aren't additional, and don't meaningfully contribute to anti-global warming efforts.
  • Appropriate scalability: This boils down to looking at the big picture.  Driesen and Popp say, “In thinking about scale, it is important to recognize that the goal here must be more ambitious than just securing some nice projects or adopting some favorable policies.”

Driesen and Popp aren't the only folks upstate who are looking at tech transfer as a means of reform.  SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said in a statement that tech transfer is part of her Power of SUNY campaign (which she's been touting as a means of proving SUNY's value as an "economic engine"):

“Relying on the established expertise of the SUNY research community, our goal is to build a best-in-class innovation infrastructure that cultivates entrepreneurial thinking, drives new industry, creates jobs and improves the quality of life in our communities.”

But if SUNY does come up with novel ways to mitigate climate change and wants to share them with nations in need, they'll do so on their own dime.  There's little momentum for federally funded climate change research, and Oliver Morton at The Economist points out that the issue continues to flounder in the absence of a national or international agreement about environmental policy.

There's not much progress on the horizon either: Obama’s cap and trade bill will likely be shelved for at another least two years, as the new Republican majority in the House is against the proposal.